Jim Harrison: The Misadventure Journals

The pages of a novelist’s sporting diary that turned out in unexpected ways

jim harrison hunting
A portrait of the author, who passed in 2015.Riccardo Vecchio

Editor’s Note: This story originally ran in the Dec. 2008–Jan. 2009 issue of Field & Stream. This is the first time it has appeared online.

When we were still twerps, we could manage rather heroic views of ourselves. I grew up in northern Michigan in the 1940s and the landscape held everything a nascent sportsman could wish except the talent to take advantage of it. The simple fact that you had to develop fishing and hunting abilities can be discouraging to a youngster who has a vaunted idea of his potentialities revolving around 10-point bucks and 5-pound brown trout, especially when he’s catching smallish bluegills and perch and the single arrow shot from his 20-pound-pull bow on an early August morning fell about 50 yards short of the buck across the gully. My father taught me well but in rare moments of absolute honesty, I am still struck by the wide variance of my imagination’s vision of a sporting venture and what actually happens. I suspect this is partly due to the fact that I’m a novelist and my livelihood is my imagination, which is as uncontrollable as a 4-month-old English pointer. The key idea is always “not what I expected” when I flip back and forth in the sporting pages of my journals, which are unfortunately mixed in with Hollywood and literary business, even the ghastly but beautiful actresses, a sport of a different kind and extremely dangerous to your wallet.

January 7, 1991

A Snake in the Grass

A fair cool morning on the Empire Ranch, Sonoita. I’m hunting the Cienega hoping my pup, Rose, honors her aunt Tess. She’s only failed once, but that was on a big covey of Gambels. I am distracted because the dogs are running off their “bloom,” meaning they are a quarter of a mile away hauling ass. I crawl under a barbed-wire fence and there, a foot from my nose, is a foot-long baby rattler. Before I have time to react, I note that in the cold grass the only thing about the snake that moves is its eyes. I rise up violently and a barb from the wire penetrates the collar of my hunting vest and neck, so when I back up the vest pulls over my head and bloody neck. Only shot two of 10 quail this day. Nervous.

Ironically, Rose’s effective life as huntress ended in our Montana yard when she was struck twice in the face by a large rattler. Rattlers are a fact of life for those who hunt in the South and West.

January 13, 1997

Lost in the Dark

Up in the foothills of the Patagonia Mountains (southern Arizona) with Phil Caputo, his setter, Sage, and my Rose. We’re finding a fair number of Gambels and Mearns, but the going is rough as we cross many arroyos laterally, following covey flushes. For some reason I think of what’s going to happen before it happens. My friend Nick Reens, the best bird hunter I know, says that if you’re going to get lost it will likely happen when the hunting is good and you’re not paying attention to the landscape and it’s time to turn around. I have a fairly good visual on where our vehicle is to the northeast, and I try to guide us on a possible shortcut, but within a half hour I see it’s not going to work. Now I opt to head south for our casita, our little house on the creek, partly because it’s downhill and I judge we are equidistant from both house and vehicle. Suddenly, it’s nearly dark and I hear Rose’s beeper. She’s on point, but it’s too dark to see her as the birds flush. It looks like we’re going to spend the night where we are.

Caputo is a Pulitzer Prize winner and an ex-Marine officer, but he doesn’t have any matches. As a steadfast smoker I have three lighters and we soon have a roaring fire in the cold night. It occurs to me that this happened nearly 50 years ago when I was 14 and lost deer hunting in northern Michigan. I managed to set a big old white pine stump on fire and was quite cozy. After a scant few minutes staring at our bonfire we note that both Rose and Sage are sniffing the area nervously. This is mountain lion country and Rose has the same aversion to this scent as she does to bears in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Caputo and I talk about lions, but in the back of my mind I’m thinking that a couple of jaguars have been seen near here in recent years. Jaguars are dog killers while mountain lions tend to avoid dogs over about 40 pounds. I decide not to bring up the subject of jaguars.

After a couple of hours a rescue chopper called by my wife finds us, but I know my Rose won’t board a helicopter. We refuse their assistance, having decided it would be more pleasant to spend the night, but then a ground contingent finds us and we make our way out, avoiding precipitous 100-foot-deep gullies as we go. Phil is embarrassed but not me because I was never a Marine. Things will look better with a quart of water, a quart of wine, and a midnight dinner.

A decade later I don’t like to think of this scenario without the cigarette lighters and the bonfire that led to our discovery. It was 19 degrees that night, not fatal but uncomfortable. I felt no fear like that I have experienced at sea several times. In well over 200 days of saltwater flyfishing in the Florida Keys I never boarded the skiff in the morning without looking askance at the outboard motor. This is because I come from the days when it might take 50 pulls to start a 5-horse Scott-Atwater so that sweat is flying out of your hair and your arm aches.

May 3, 1984

Adrift in the Marquesas

It's a fair but muggy day when we set off from Garrison Bight for the hour-long run to the Marquesas. We're (I'm with Guy de la Valdéne) slightly hungover but this is Key West, where hangovers are freely given out. I decide to ignore the weather news that something is brewing for midafternoon, though this prediction does tend to itch in the back of my mind. We jump a few tarpon at Platform Point of Boca Grande Key, nothing large, about 80 pounds, then have a smooth 12-mile crossing to the southeast bank of the Marquesas. The fishing is grand, though we can't reach the huge females in the middle of the school. Suddenly there's a depth charge at the reef line and our fishing is ruined by a truly huge hammerhead out of the Gulf Stream. It bobbles a tarpon on its nose, then crunch, crunch, crunch, as it were. The shark throws a rooster tail of mud as it chases a school into shallow water. When it passes the boat I think that it makes "Jaws" look like Mary Poppins, but then we're right there with the raw meat on the floor.

jim harrison hunting
The author with Tess, who also had a penchant for getting into predicaments.Terry B. Phipps

We’ve been distracted, and finally notice a front closing in from Cuba to the south. The wind picks up quickly and is opposing the outgoing tide, which makes for choppy water. To be frank, it becomes horrifying. The crossing to the shelter on lee of Boca Grande is interminable because Guy has to run the skiff slowly through the wave troughs, a hand constantly adjusting the throttle. We’re both thinking that this will exhaust the full tank of gas we started with. It does and now we’re adrift near the Spoils Bank in clear sight of the longed-for saloons of Key West. We barely miss tying off to a buoy, but miss it and start drifting out toward Sand Key in the Gulf Stream. We have a CB but the Coast Guard only monitors VHF. Finally we raise a trucker on the Keys Highway and he calls the marina. After much confusion about the nearest marker we are brought gas after a very long hour and a half. Back at the Chart Room in Key West I have a triple martini, which doesn’t help me forget the shark’s big horned eyeballs.

Perhaps we weren’t in true danger, but it felt like it. So much can happen out there, like reading a chart and thinking you have 3 feet of water, which means you can still slam the bottom between big waves and break your lower unit. Once we seriously broached while crossing the often-nasty Northwest Channel to Mule and Archer Keys. We almost made it with a boat full of water, and luckily reached a sandbar. We bailed and bailed and I got under the console and dried off a nest of inscrutable wires after finally noting the connections were color-coded. Guy is as dumb as me with mechanical things and was quite impressed. I dread to think of the days the weather told me we shouldn’t leave the dock but we did anyway.

Everyone knows that there’s a limited amount of information maps can contain, even the vaunted topographical maps of which I once owned dozens for Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

July 19, 1987

Portage Hell

My brook trout fishing partner Mike was once a timber cruiser. Last night at his bar, the Dunes Saloon, we made a plan to take his small Sports Pal canoe across a couple of miles of uncharted marsh and swamp on the East Branch of the Fox on the Upper Peninsula. We figure it’ll take a couple of hours at most. Brook trout lack intelligence and the chance of getting the dreamed-about 5-pounder depends on unfished waters. The “couple of hours” turned into eight. The day was a literal mud bath because we ended up portaging 37 beaver dams. We looked tarred and feathered without the feathers. We caught some brookies and Mike lost a large one, but I wouldn’t return to this place at gunpoint.

The sense of comedy only comes afterward with a shower and a drink while scratching the black- and deerfly bites on your scalp. I have visual images of a man struggling waist-deep in the brush of a collapsed beaver dam. Once while fishing with the novelist Tom McGuane in a johnboat on the Yellowstone River, before either of us could afford a proper drift boat, a violent line squall attacked us. We sought shelter with our precious bamboo rods on an island, but the horrendous wind started somersaulting the johnboat and McGuane had to run in front of it, dodging the boat like a halfback. Another day, fishing with my friend and guide Dan Lahren near Big Timber, a thunderstorm blindsided us from behind the foothills to the south. You could tell it was close by the way the lightning struck a cottonwood 50 yards away. Suddenly the wind was gusting at close to 90 knots. I’m good at wind, having spent 25 summers close to Lake Superior. Luckily, our takeout and vehicle were only a quarter of a mile downstream. Unluckily, the wind was pushing the high bowed drift boat uncontrollably fast. As we went whipping past the takeout place Danny flung himself out of the boat with the anchor in his arms. It was fortunate the water was waist-deep because he can’t swim. After being dragged 50 yards as if he had roped a bull, he finally swung the boat to shore. It was all dumb but effective.

Of course sometimes our foolishness is irrelevant and chance or fate victimizes us. When I was in Montana recently, an elk hunter got his face swiped off by a blow from a sow grizzly, last November. I shot my 15th rattler in our yard in the past five years because it was threatening our old cat Warren a foot from the front doorsteps. I’m a bit snake leery and will never forget how uncomfortable I felt back in 1972, when our boat broke down out of sight of land off Ecuador. There were dozens of extremely venomous sea snakes swimming around the boat and the fact that I had caught five striped marlin that day did not allay my nervousness. Years later in the Yucatán, while swimming in a cenote, a rock pool in the jungle connected to the ocean, a friend told me not to be upset if an anaconda approached because the snake would catch my scent and turn away. How comforting. Up to that point I was only concerned about the fer-de-lances. I’m also a little fearful of alligators. Once when Guy and I returned from duck hunting to a marina on Lake Okeechobee, an old local chided us for shooting out of inner tubes with crotch slings. True, we had lost a number of shot ducks to a big gator, but it hadn’t even occurred to me that my wagging legs could be a target.

Your dogs can also get you in trouble. In Arizona, my setter Tess once went on point at the bottom of a very steep arroyo, a bad situation because I had never been able to get her to break point. She had even held point while sliding backward down a steep hill. I threw rocks but failed to flush the covey, so I made my way down like an overweight rock climber, losing my grasp and sliding while feeling my back lose a lot of skin. My fall flushed the covey, and as I lay there Tess was kind enough to lick my face. The real possible danger, however, is other people.

February 4, 1993

On the Border

The season is nearly over and I make my last foray up toward the top end of Three R Canyon about 10 miles from the Arizona-Mexico border. It is rough country, but Tess will have plenty of time to recover and so will I. We are just reaching my hot area when Tess goes on point facing a side arroyo. I come around a boulder and come face-to-face with three surprised men and three loaded pack mules. It occurs to me that they are not bringing food into the U.S. I recognize one of the men from the bar, so I laugh and give them the thumbs-up. They are armed but I have the drop on them with my 16-gauge. I call Tess and we continue up the trail. I know I’m not dead because I don’t hear a shot. I do not shoot well after this experience, but finally bag a very rare double near my 4WD when I come back down the mountain.

Only recently a friend told me about a man-related disaster that made mine look puny. About 30 years ago, at 19, he worked for a hunting outfitter, and they had gone into the Brooks Range of Alaska with a dozen horses. The outfitter and clients had flown out after the hunt, leaving my friend and another young man. The outfitter evidently then got drunk for two weeks and the pickup was ill-organized and missed. Winter was closing in and my friend and the other Montanan hiked out 120 miles. All of the horses died on the way except one, and then it fell through the ice of a river, scrambled out, and died on the spot. It was carrying their last food, moose meat, but they were afraid to retrieve the meat because it would have been fatal to get wet. When they finally reached an oil camp, my friend found he had dropped from 155 pounds to 115. Tough boys. “If I hadn’t grown up fishing and hunting I would have died,” he told me.

About a month ago in Patagonia, Ariz., I was having a good-bye drink with Phil Caputo. He was leaving for Connecticut and I was headed back to Montana. While laughing about our past long evening in the cold canyon, he said that he never again goes hunting without matches. Good idea. Nothing gets you in trouble more than enthusiasm not tempered by good sense. Now that it’s May in Montana I’ve decided not to hunt morel mushrooms in the vicinity of recent grizzly reports. I love a pan of fried mushrooms, but I’d like to keep my homely face.